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Where “Sláinte!” Meets “Kanpai!”

Making delicious whiskey is big in Japan

Author Laura Kiniry

Japan’s first whiskey distillery, Yamazaki, nestled in the forested hills above the Kansai plain

EVEN AS IRISH WHISKEYS command an ever-larger hegemony on bar shelves, there’s a new country jockeying for market share. Japanese whiskey has been around since the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1924 that the country opened its first commercial distillery, Yamazaki. Today that same distillery’s spicy, buttery 12-year single malt is increasingly appearing on the menu of any whiskey bar worth its brandy-soaked cherries. And nightspots throughout the U.S.—including The Box in New York City and Karyn’s on Green in Chicago—have begun incorporating the spirit into specialty cocktails, alongside such industry standards as Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace.

How is a newcomer like Yamazaki competing with whiskey makers in areas that boast centuries of distilling history? The secret is its geographical location, which— like those famed hills in Kentucky, Ireland and Scotland—provides fresh water (three rivers converge here) and a moist climate with all four seasons, the ideal setup for aging spirits. Plus, Japan’s mountainous terrain means the Yamazaki malt master can store barrels at different elevations, allowing more control over the expansion in the wood—and more flavor.

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